The Sound of Building Coffins

by Louis Maistros

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros, book cover The Sound of Building Coffins is a surreal novel of evil and redemption in 1891 New Orleans. Despite the richly detailed historical setting, the author's interest is more in allegory than in actual past events. The specter of Hurricane Katrina haunts the pages.

Cajun minister Noonday Morningstar has named his children Malaria, Cholera, Diphtheria, Dropsy, and Typhus. "Morningstar saw life as a trial and death as a reward, a bridge to paradise—and he saw God's mysterious afflictions of the body as holy paths to that salvation." But though disease is a constantly hovering presesnce, the story turns on murder, beginning with the hanging of a Sicilian immigrant by a lynch mob. Morningstar arrives at the immigrant's home to give last rites to the hanged man's dying child, but encounters a much eerier situation.

"Noonday heard the voice of Jesus telling him to leave, telling him that to stay would mean to sacrifice himself in vain.... Noonday had often heard the nagging voice of God in his head, had never before questioned it. But the kind of blatant abandonment suggested by his God today felt wrong to him." Soon, the consequences of Morningstar's stubborn compassion begin to pile up, landing first on nine-year-old Typhus, a soul of uncommon sweetness whose self-sacrifice dooms him to a life of disfigurement and unwelcome intimacy with evil.

Though drenched in surrealism, The Sound of Building Coffins has a straightforward, chronological structure that makes it easy to follow. It is not a genre horror story, but a tale of human beings at the bottom of the social heap struggling for a measure of comfort and justice they may never find in life. "They say in New Orleans death is so close ... that parades are thrown in place of funerals, parades that begin with the solemnity of a dirge only to explode into joyous send-offs to God knows where." This novel imagines where that might be. (2009, 358 pages)

More about The Sound of Building Coffins from Powell's Books

Other novels set in nineteenth century New Orleans:

The Feast of All Saints by Anne Rice (1979), a realistic historical novel about free people of color in early nineteenth century New Orleans.
More info

The Serpent and the Staff by Frank Yerby (1958), about a physician in New Orleans after the Civil War. More info

A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly (1997), a mystery novel featuring a free man of color in 1830s New Orleans; #1 in the Benjamin January series. More info

Nonfiction about Vodou:

Mama Lola: A Vodoo Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown (1991). More info

Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santera to Obeah and Espiritismo by Mar Fernandez Olmos (2003).
More info

Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth, and Reality by Patrick Bellegarde-Smith (2006). More info

Secrets of the Voodoo Tomb, an article about Marie Laveau's tomb and the folk customs surrounding it.

Back to Novels of 19th Century America

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